Interview With Byan Saunders: Part 1 of 2

There’s not much science here. I discovered artist Byan Saunders through the ‘45 Drug Portraits‘ link that is still being spread around various social media aggregators, but in looking at the portraits, I knew there was something else going on with Saunders beyond mere drug experimentation. First and foremost, Saunders is a performance artist trying new ideas—some provocative, some confrontational, some obsessed—to discover more about what it means to be human (an absurd idea in itself, of course). He’s got other interviews with places like Wired and Huffington Post, but none have gone to the reaches we went to here. What follows is the first of a two-part e-mail conversation between me and Saunders that took place over six-or-so weeks.

Self-portrait drawn on Klonopin.

Q: Since we’re meeting you by way of the 45 drug portraits, tell us a bit about that project. What inspired it? Any trepidations leading into it?

Leaving out the long sad story leading up to it, I lived in an 11 story apartment building that had a wide variety of drugs running through it. I didn’t have any fears or apprehensions about it at all. I just wanted to do a different drug everyday for as many days as possible and draw. The drawings seemed really different to me. And the people that gave me the drugs also saw the pictures afterward and then it wasn’t long before word spread through the whole building and people started cleaning out their medicine cabinets for me. I had a lot of support. It got to a point where an old man I didn’t know just knocked on my door and said, “When I was a kid we used to huff lighter fluid.” and then handed me some lighter fluid.

Self-portrait drawn on lighter fluid.

Q: It seems to be somewhat apparent from your portraits what drugs were ‘better’ and what were ‘worse.’ Perhaps this is a bit exploitative of a question, but what drug was the ‘best’ in this experiment, and what drug was the ‘worst?’ Interpret these qualitative terms however you may.

Any beznos or anti-anxiety agents are best for me personally because I stay “jacked-up” in my natural state. It gets out of control. I’m known for getting on the bullhorn and going off on people on the street outside of my apartment building when they “mess up”. So things that can knock me down a notch and find a focus through incessant thoughts, or keep me off of the bullhorn unless it’s absolutely necessary is always a plus. DMT however was the most cleanest and interesting of them all. Whereas a few small hits off of a joint may make me paranoid and have irrational fears, or even a panic attack, the DMT was 1000 times more powerful than that but I had no negative experiences at all and it was so short lived that I could enjoy it and then continue with the rest of my day like it never happened. And to top it off it didn’t cripple my seratonin levels at all either. The worst are the heavy tranquilizers, ant-psychotics, and PCP. Basically anything that detaches my mind from my body for long periods of time is pretty nasty.

Self-portrait drawn on PCP.

Q: Obviously, some of these drugs pinned you down. How did you support yourself (financially, physically, etc.) during the experiment?

I think I was working at McDonalds then, but after the first 11 days or so many of them were done in institutions; Broughton State Hospital and a group home called Country Time Village both in North Carolina. Oh yeah and then there was Westwood B a group home in Asheville, NC. Some were done in the Johnson City Medical Center. And the one where I’m wearing a My Little Pony shirt, that was here in Johnson City, TN at a facility called Woodridge.

Q: An artist friend of mine suggested a small critique of your 45 drug portraits, saying that it might have been interesting to see an additional control in the experiment—like if you had used one type of drawing utensil or one type of portraiture. Did you consider this option, or does the diversity of portraiture in this experiment play better reflect your work as a performance artist, rather than just an illustrator or painter?

I find it interesting that “intellectual” people are most often disappointed with my “under the Influence” images because I don’t draw the exact same picture on every different drug. They say there is way too much variety, and too many wild and varied styles for them to glean any useful information about the effects the drugs had on me. But I say it’s impossible to separate the two. Their rationale is that the way I do it, by spontaneously choosing media based on subjective feelings brought on by the drug and my built in cognitive webs, makes it difficult for them to “see” the “physiological” effect that that drug has on my ability to render an image of myself. In essence they are disappointed that they can’t easily determine the effect that the different drugs have on my motor skills or visual process. Now a self-portrait is saturated with bias from the start. Bias is in the nature of the act itself. When it comes to self-portraiture the more informed the bias is, the more interesting the likeness, usually. It’s totally impossible to separate the “scientist” from the lab rat or in this case the artist from the likeness. And after all it’s art not science. I’m a thinking feeling human being that’s had experiences and not some mechanical entity with human tissue discovering levels of its inability to function properly. And limiting experiences to a single medium is just as wrong. Interpreting weed, DMT, lighter fluid and crack with the same tool is a waste of the human ability to express themselves fully. That’s what different mediums are for in the first place. There’s truth in media, a lot of people just have to learn how to see it.

Saunders undergoing a hearing test.

Q: As an artist, do you consider it your responsibility to represent ‘truth in media,’ or is ‘truth’ more of a byproduct of your work?

Truth in media has been understood since the dawn of humanity, ever since there was a difference between pigment, berries and jewelry. The only time I really consider ‘truth’ is when I’m questioned about the reality or fiction of something I’ve written or said during a performance. Different definition.

Q: In what ways do people question the reality or fiction of things you’ve written or done? How do you generally respond?

Usually they ask, “Is that true?” And I say, “Everything is true except I’ve never worked at an animal testing facility before. That one I made up” Some pieces are compilations of stories though. I will sometimes combine multiple events for emotional purposes.

Q: So the ‘drug’ project was one of your many projects. Do you have a common medium for your art? Or a common ‘theme?’

A common theme would probably be that most of my work is opposite or a complement to already well established forms. For example: Stand-Up Tragedy, Stream of Unconsciousness (Narrative Mode), The Third Ear Experiment, Lost Art and even the Daily Self-Portraits in that the original plan was to put the world into representations of myself and not vice versa.

Self-portrait drawn on Butane Honey Oil.

Q: Can you explain about about what these forms are, and what they do?

Well the Stand-Up Tragedy is in contrast to Stand-Up Comedy. Instead of making strangers laugh the goal is to make them cry, which is an extremely difficult challenge. It is relatively easy to say a word wrong, or tell an amusing anecdote from life, or fall down and bump your head and make people laugh, but to make them cry is much more difficult. First you have to get them to believe you. The best way to do that is to present images of yourself or others experiencing the things concerned. Then you have you to wear them down with graphic details and stories full of emotions and hope you are effective and strike a nerve with the audiences own experiences.

The Stream of Unconsciousness (narrative mode) is in contrast to the well known Stream of Consciousness. Over the course of several years, I classically conditioned myself to record my dreams orally in my sleep. That combined with semi-wakeful dream descriptions helps to fill in the dream experience more fully. Like making a hole by drawing the circle around it. It’s an unconscious form because I don’t remember having said any of it while I was asleep. Unlike the Stream of Conscious where you basically are just free styling, the dream world is actually much more involved because it is in essence a form of unconscious storytelling. It is also much more than the absurdity of sleep-talking too because the monologs and the semi-wakeful dream descriptions help complete the dream. The Stream of Unconscious is the closest humans can get to recording, physically documenting, the dream experience.

The Third Ear Experiment is a complement to the Third Eye of certain spiritual traditions. For 28 days I blocked up my ears and attached a copper funnel to my mouth in an effort to connect my eustachian tubes to my pineal gland by physically rerouting the way in which sound entered my body. And it worked. I’m now a self-described “Hearer”. I experienced enough phenomenon in that project alone to last me the rest of my life just documenting those experiences and exploring them and the ideas that were brought forth.

The Lost Art is in contrast to Found Art. Since the mid 90’s I’ve been losing photographs and other works on purpose for others to find in the hopes that their discovery will be an artistic one. And so on.

Q: Is your work in any way connected to Dadaism or Fluxus? I ask because some of these sound like Fluxus-type activities.

I don’t feel that there is any absurdity or humor or even much sense of chance involved in what I do. Most of my work is extremely thought out and calculated. Even when it comes to losing art, I’ll do it in strategic places. If what I do is interpreted as Dada, the interpreter would have a demented sense of humor, and probably be a psychopath because of the strong emotions involved. I wouldn’t call it Fluxus either, though there are positive social goals and aspirations involved, but contrary to Fluxus there is a determinacy involved as well.

Self portrait from ‘Anxiety’ series.

Q: The idea of Stand Up Tragedy is especially interesting to me. Can you talk about a particular instance of this that was successful (ie: you made people cry)?

The first time I ever made audience members cry was at a place called Minglewoods in downtown Johnson City in 2001. I wrote a short poem/song called “Mommy Forgot Me”. It was written in the form of one of those psychological tests where the doctor says a word and then the patient quickly responds with the first word that comes to their mind. So I had a tape recording of myself as the doctor saying words and then I, the patient, answered back on stage live. I set it up so that both the doctor and my patient’s live responses would get faster and faster building onto the previous words and ideas until we were both firing off a battery of words at each other that transformed into simple but harrowing stories of trauma and neglect. Each time the exchange would get more emotionally intense too, as if the psychological test was working. The exchange would end when the child patient would break into a monotonous, “Mommy forgot me mommy forgot me mommy forgot me.” over and over again. And the next time it was, Daddy forgot me daddy forgot me. After the quote “psychological breakthrough” the doctor and patient sang/chanted together taking turns saying the words Mommy and Daddy really fast back and forth as if the words were having sex and then producing the offspring word Baby. Until the baby word became emotionally born and left alone drifting off into infinity. 2 men cried. I don’t know how many women cried, only the men told me about it afterward.

[To be concluded…]

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